As the Republican Party positions itself for a major comeback after its electoral losses in 2006 and 2008, it is looking for ways to undercut Barack Obama's appeal as the nation's first black president without opening itself to accusations of racism.
Evidently as part of that effort, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour this week laid out a revisionist version of the modern history of the Deep South.
"The people that led the change of parties in the South ... was my generation," the 62 year old Barbour told an interviewer from Human Events. "I went to an integrated college. Never thought twice about it. And it was the old Democrats who had fought for segregation so hard. By my time, people realized that was the past, it was indefensible, wasn't going to be that way any more."
"That is Haley Barbour's history of segregation in the South," MSNBC's Rachel Maddow commented on Thursday. "Essentially, it was all over by his time. That's not the real history. That's not even Haley Barbour's real history."
Maddow pointed out that Barbour graduated from high school in Yazoo City in 1964 or 1965, and that Mississippi schools were not desegregated "until the Supreme Court forced them to in 1970." He later attended d the University of Mississippi, where as late as 1968, there were exactly 39 black students and no black teachers or athletes, graduating in 1973.
Maddow further noted that Barbour's own children attended a private high school in Yazoo City which was "founded in 1969 when all-white private schools were popping up across Mississippi because public schools were being forced to integrate." Manchester Academy did not admit its first black student until 1996, "a year before one of Mr. Barbour's sons looks to have graduated."
Barbour, who chaired the Republican National Committee in the 1990s, was elected governor of Mississippi in 2003 in a campaign marked by a vicious smear campaign against Democrats. He currently heads the Republican Governor's Association, which last month received a $1 million donation from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Barbour is seriously considering a presidential bid in 2012.
To pursue his national ambitions, however, he needs to dispel persistent suspicions of racist attitudes. In 2003, he was photographed at a fundraiser sponsored by the neo-Confederate Council of Conservative Citizens. Just last spring, he defended Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's failure to mention slavery in a proclamation on Confederate History Month, saying it "doesn't matter for diddly."
Barbour's revisionism extends beyond his own interests, however. As explained by Maddow, he is claiming that "the modern Republican Party is as dominant as it is in the South because it's so against segregation."
"The people who really changed the South from Democrat to Republican was a different generation from those who fought integration," Barbour told the Human Events interviewer.
For the real scoop on those events, Maddow turned to Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, who cheerily remarked, "Gee, Rachel, I was there too. ... Do you mind if I just rant a little bit?"
"There was a time, yes, when ... the Democratic Party was the party of segregation," Robinson acknowledged. "Then came a little thing called the Civil Rights Act in 1964. That was passed by Lyndon Johnson, who was seen by many white southerners as a race traitor. Johnson said at the time that his civil rights legislation would cost Democrats the South for a generation. He was being modest."
In the 1964 presidential election, Robinson noted, Republican Barry Goldwater took just six states -- his home state of Arizona plus five in the Deep South. "That was the moment when the Republican Party began to become the party of white Southern grievance," Robsinson explained, adding, "Haley Barbour's version of events is the biggest bunch of revisionist claptrap I think I have ever heard in my life."
In 1968, former Alabama Governor George Wallace ran as a third-party candidate for president on an explicitly pro-segregation platform, winning four of the same states in the Deep South that had gone for Goldwater, plus one other. Richard Nixon, who was elected that year, then explicitly adopted a so-called "Southern strategy" of attempting to win over those Wallace voters.
As explained in 1970 by strategist Kevin Phillips, "The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. Thatâ€™s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats."
"This is perhaps the way Haley Barbour would like to remember his racial attitudes," Robinson concluded. "The more cynical view of it would be that this is ... just to kind of muddy the water ... and perhaps allay the concerns of, say, white suburban independents who would perhaps vote for a conservative but perhaps not vote for a bigot."
This video is from MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, broadcast Sep. 2, 2010.